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Organist revives a campus treasure

Leonardo Ciampa brings beautiful music to the community with a series of organ concerts.
Leonardo Ciampa plays the organ in the MIT Chapel.
Leonardo Ciampa plays the organ in the MIT Chapel.
Photo: Stephanie Keeler
The MIT Chapel Organ
The MIT Chapel Organ
Photo: Patrick Gillooly

When Leonardo Ciampa cautiously ascends the steep stairs to the loft in the MIT Chapel, he looks more like a mountaineer than a musician. But when he reaches the peak and starts to play the pipe organ there, the chapel seems more like heaven than Earth.

It is a sound that transports visitors, too. Newcomers are often unaware of the organ’s presence until the music starts, when they look up to discover the source of the sound. Since September, Ciampa has made it his mission to bring that music to anyone who’ll listen.

The building was designed by architect Eero Saarinen, a mid-century master who designed such icons as the St. Louis Arch and the Dulles Airport terminal. The organ was custom-designed for the chapel in 1955 by the renowned Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The space creates an acoustic environment that organ makers dream of, Ciampa says, and the result is “a perfect marriage between organ and building.”

But for the past 25 years, the organ in the Chapel — and its larger cousin, in Kresge Auditorium — have sat largely unused, except for a few weddings and the occasional service. Then, last August, Ciampa walked into the office of Robert Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute, with a resume and an idea for a series of organ concerts.

“Bob [Randolph] said, ‘We don’t have any money.’ So I said, ‘I’ll raise the money myself,’” Ciampa recalls. “And he trusted me. I thought, ‘Oh, boy — now I really have to do this!”

And Ciampa kept his word, raising enough money to host an organ concert series this fall, as well as a Christmas Concert. Religious Life also received a grant from the MIT Council for the Arts, which helped Ciampa to organize another series next spring.

In the process, Ciampa has revitalized an Institute treasure. Randolph remembers Ciampa’s first time playing the organ. “He came back to my office glowing,” the chaplain said. “He looked like he was radioactive.”

Today, people hear music more than ever before, Ciampa says, but from iPods and car stereos. “You rarely get to hear real music, that isn’t projected using microphones or speakers, but just real sound, like pipes speaking into a room,” he says. “That kind of music has never been more relevant. It has never been more important than now to hear it.”

And, he adds, the music that comes from the organ in the chapel “is as real and as relevant as anyone could hope to hear.”

You can hear the organ with your own ears every Tuesday morning at 8:30 during the Tuesdays in the Chapel Reflection, and at the concert series this spring. For a full list of performers in the Organ Concert Series, go to

Click here to listen to a New Year's Organ Concert, broadcast from the MIT Chapel.

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